Interview with
Michael G. Nastos

The annual SEMJA Award, now named after bassist and our founder Ron Brooks, has mostly gone to musicians and supporters of jazz, but this year we celebrate someone who has contributed mightily to all aspects of the music, but is best known as a radio broadcaster. For as long as many of us can remember, Michael G. Nastos was one of the great voices of one of America’s greatest jazz radio stations, WEMU. Michael not only held down an evening broadcasting slot but also lovingly curated the events calendar, which provided the most extensive coverage of jazz performances in southeast Michigan. For seasoned listeners, his show combined a revisiting of familiar territory but also provided new discoveries to be pursued while newcomers to jazz learned how to appreciate and love the music as Michael does not just play records, he provides invaluable background information and listening cues but also radiates an infectious passion and love for the art and its performers. But as much as he is generally known for his years at WEMU, this is only a part of the story of his versatile ever exploratory personality.

Recently we spent a few hours talking with Michael about his extraordinary life. As his friends know, he is not very different in person than on the radio: he speaks clearly and thoughtfully but no matter the topic, he digs in with passion and a love of detail. His love of music started at home and as a teenager in Milan he was hooked on jazz while at the same time training as a medical assistant, which led to a job at a psychiatric hospital in Ypsilanti. His first work for a radio station was at WAAM, which at the time was a music station, very different from what it is today, first selling ads and coupons, eventually subbing and then fielding his own show. “They thought I had a good voice” Michael says. “They put me on the air as George Michaels, I played a weird mixture of John Denver and disco.” In 1972, two years after graduating high school, he began a four-year association as music director of the student run University of Michigan radio station WCBN, where he helped move the programming into unconventional free-form directions and was able to host his own jazz show. “I instituted the Jazz Around Midnight show. Michael Lang was part of it” he remembered.

In 1979 Michael packed up his car and moved to Woodstock, NY, to work as a publicist for the Creative Music Studio, a unique study center for contemporary music, founded by Karl Berger and a few other musicians. This was a place of around the clock learning, playing and experimentation and a meeting place of musicians from different countries and musical backgrounds, the birthplace of many new jazz, classical and progressive rock developments. There Michael met musicians from all over the world and got to know some of the finest musicians on the planet, such as Roscoe Mitchell and Don Cherry, not to mention writer William Burroughs, and his time there, while brief, has remained with him to this day, as he recounts story after story from those marvelous days. “It was a mind-expanding experience” he told us. But when the grant money was not renewed, he packed up his car, moved for a short time to Washington D.C., and then returned permanently to Michigan. In 1980 he began to work part-time for WEMU, eventually becoming one of its major broadcasters; he stayed there, with the exception of a couple of years, until 2013. He singled out the days when his old friend Jim Dulzo was Program Director as the high point of his WEMU days.

As important as it is, Michael’s radio work is only a part of his indefatigable work on behalf of music. Writing has always been a major focus of his work: back in the days when the Ann Arbor News was still a newspaper, he was its special music writer and columnist. He has edited books, written over twenty record and cd liner notes, provided program notes for the Detroit and Frog Island jazz festivals, written profiles and reviews for the All Media Music Guide and worked as feature writer and Detroit correspondent for two of the most important national jazz magazines, Down Beat and Cadence. In addition, he has written for many international journals such as the Irish Jazz Journal, the Japanese Swing Journal, Canadian Coda or Polish Jazz Forum. In concert with his international writing, he regularly contributes, by invitation, to the most important annual critics’ polls. “Every year I vote for Don Cherry and Eddie Jefferson in the Down Beat Hall of Fame,” he told us.

In his ceaseless efforts on behalf of music, Michael has also worked to organize and promote performance opportunities for musicians and to bring major artists to our area. This aspect of his life began at the time he joined WCBN. Together with a small group of enthusiasts, in 1975 he helped found ECLIPSE, an organization dedicated to presenting music and workshops by some of the leading artists of the day. In its first year ECLIPSE brought Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor, among others, to Ann Arbor. Michael was involved with the organization for a decade, but also worked in similar capacities off and on since then, producing performance series at venues in Ann Arbor, working for the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival, Frog Island, the Toledo Jazz Festival, the Brighton Jazz and Blues Festival, and even serving as the business manager for the American Federation of Musicians for four years. Most important, for us, he was one of the founders of SEMJA and served with passion and dedication on its board for many years.

It is important to underline the fact that Michael has known music from the inside, having played instruments for much of his life. While at Milan High School he played percussion instruments, eventually rising to first chair in various ensembles and garnering prizes for ensemble and solo work. He continued his studies at Washtenaw Community College under the tutelage of the late Morris Lawrence, one of the greatest educators in music, who recognized his talents and allowed him to serve as percussion and jazz history instructor for a number of years. Off and on over the years he has continued to play in various groups, and his playing has even been preserved occasionally on recordings such as As the Cicada Breathes by the Sublingual Ensemble from 2004 where his percussion plays a major role.

These are only the highlights of the many contributions that Michael has made to the artistic life of our community and do not touch on his other passions such as baseball, racing cars or literature. These days Michael is back on the airwaves on WCBN. SEMJA will bestow the Ron Brooks Award upon him with the full knowledge that his work on behalf of the music he loves will continue for many years to come. Michael summed things up this way: “I have accomplished a lot in my life and I am very proud of what we have done to advance culture.”